- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2006

ANKARA, Turkey. — Much speculation surrounds the letter Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent to President Bush. Could he be trying to prevent a pre-emptive strike against his country with pro-active diplomacy?

“It really was a kind of philosophical and indeed religious attack on U.S. policies,” said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, brushing aside any suggestion that it could start a direct U.S.-Iran dialogue. But Iran’s desire to engage speaks more loudly than the letter itself.

Mr. Ahmadinejad has broken a taboo among the radically conservative Iranian leadership, proving he can determine the country’s agenda.

When the letter was delivered to the Americans in Switzerland, Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief negotiator on the nuclear issue, was holding high-level talks with Turkish officials in Ankara. Former negotiator Hassan Rohani was ready to publish an article in Time magazine that discussed Iran’s suggestions on breaking the negotiation stalemate over the nuclear issue. In other words, Mr. Ahmadinejad pro-actively orchestrated a three-pronged diplomacy to create an opportunity to speak directly with the United States.

That dialogue is exactly what Turkey wants. Ankara told Iran to talk directly with the United States, but Mr. Larijani rejected the idea, saying the “U.S. should first correct its attitude.” That’s the Catch-22. Many in the region are troubled by the U.S. intervention in Iraq. As shocking as September 11 was, the “unsuccessful” image of the United States in Iraq is causing a lot of trouble not only about U.S. intentions, but also about what the future holds for the region.

In the last week, I have talked to shopkeepers, taxi drivers and friends who are not foreign-policy experts but who are following developments very closely. These ordinary Turks are questioning why the United States is shying away from talking to Iran. No one seems to expect America to take the offer readily. However, Turks believe that debate is the essence of American democracy. They do not view America’s role in Iraq as a success, and they believe many of the questions Mr. Ahmadinejad asked are an issue throughout the region.

These ordinary Turks express concern that neither Americans nor Iranians are trustworthy. They express concern over U.S. policies in Iraq. They believe the United States inaction against the PKK is a part of a bigger plan, and that U.S. policies are destined to threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity. What’s more, although Iranians cooperated more actively on the PKK matter since the removal of Saddam Hussein, they have not claimed support among ordinary Turks.

Turks on the street do not see Iran as a threat — but even more than that, people here do not believe Iran is capable of building a nuclear weapon without help from countries that are already nuclear powers.

They believe that Iran is being used as a tool by those powers. Yet there seems to be a question about what they are trying to achieve.

Some believe a war with Iran is around the corner, and that its justification will have nothing to do with nuclear power but will be designed to weaken Islamic countries. Even if Iranians were to harm the American military, civilians or the homeland, at the end of the day they will lose much more than the Americans. That will be enough for America to claim victory and make rebuilding faster and easier.

Another line of thinking reasons that a second military operation in the region isn’t possible. They believe the United States will cut a deal with Iran sooner or later, and the letter is the first sign of such a deal.

They see talks at the United Nations or the International Atomic Energy Agency as diplomatic dance, but suspect Iran and the United States have already begun a direct dialogue.

Turkey, however, has no public role in this debate yet beyond urging both sides to talk, according to public opinion. Therefore, Turks give Mr. Ahmadinejad credit for his letter. They believe it was also a sign that he backed off from his “wiping off Israel from the map” rhetoric.

Now the question is whether the United States is determined to launch its democratization policies all over the Middle East. It’s a great opportunity to see Karen Hughes, the assistant secretary of state in charge of public diplomacy, addressing those questions that Mr. Ahmadinejad asked. This is the time to make the case outlining what exactly the Western-style of democracy is, and to determine what kind of democracy can flourish in Muslim countries and where Turkey fits in.

Turks feel they are being pulled in two directions — siding with either the United States or Iran, and having to choose between different definitions of secularism and democracy. And in the midst of all the anti-American rhetoric over the Iraq war, they expect the United States to lead — but to lead right.

Tulin Daloglu is the Washington correspondent and columnist for Turkey’s Star TV and newspaper. A former BBC reporter, she writes occasionally for The Washington Times.

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